Should we allow our kids a dash of lippy and blusher for fun, or is it really the thin end of the wedge? Liz Breslin and Laura Williamson take sides.
Down with make-up
By Laura Williamson
I hate to be one of those "when I was young" people, but when I was young things were different. The first time I showed up at the dinner table with my eyelids caked in green shadow, lashes double mascara-thick and lips poppy crimson (my father marched me straight back to the bathroom to wash it off), I was 14 years old. I was trying to look either like a Charlie's Angel or Pat Benatar, I can't remember which, but it was someone 10 years older than I was. Nothing wrong with that. It's in a teenager's job description to freak her parents out, and there's nothing better for it than a Rocky Horror Picture Show slathering of cosmetics.
This is not, however, a child's job. Yet these days girls are hitting the make-up counter - not face paint, mind you, but proper, grown-up make-up - at an increasingly young age. Take the Hannah Montana Backstage Makeover Make-up Set, complete with lip gloss, eye glitter and applicator brushes. The product is listed as suitable for ages three and up. Three! In one sense, I guess, this is logical. Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus was 13 when the show had its debut, so maybe a three year old taking a break from smearing paint on the upholstery to trying out Miley's favourite shade of lip shimmer is just the modern equivalent of my teen self emulating a 24-year-old pop star.
On the other hand, it's downright wrong. It's bad enough Miley Cyrus herself was prancing about dressed like a 20 year old when she had just hit puberty. For girls not yet ready for school to imitate her is not only weird, it's frightening.
In a recent New York Times article about the KGOY (Kids Getting Older Younger) trend, the writer described a seven year old's birthday party (one guest was her three-year-old sister) at the Dashing Diva nail spa, where the girls were enjoying manicures, pedicures and mini-makeovers. This wasn't girls hanging around the make-up counter while Mum shopped. Dashing Diva offers birthday party packages - a once-adult occasion marketed directly at children. And why not? It's a big market. In the United Kingdom, a survey conducted by Mintel found 63% of seven to 10 year olds wore lipstick and 80% wore nail polish.
Unfortunately, with the early uptake of cosmetics comes an early uptake of all sorts of issues children should not have to face. For one, make-up use teaches girls that they are not beautiful the way they are, that to be pretty one needs to enhance facial features and hide imperfections. This is the untruth that the beauty industry trades on, and that shackles women to a lifetime of spending money on their goods.
It's also the untruth that makes adolescence the minefield that so many of us remember it to be, one plagued by insecurities about looks, body image and fashion. Do we really want childhood to be the same?
There's also this uncomfortable reality: make-up is designed to make women alluring to men. Lipstick has long been associated with overt sexuality (to the point that the British Parliament outlawed lipstick in 1770, arguing that it represented a form of witchcraft with which women seduced men into marrying them). This is why my dad made me wash my make-up off when I was 14, something he wouldn't have done if I'd been dolled up in butterfly face paint. There's a difference between dress up and cosmetics - one is for children, one is not.
There's nothing wrong with being interested in looking pretty or dressing up. These are things girls do. But surely it's as important for them to know that to be pretty and to dress up (or use make up) are two different things, and keeping the wee ones off the war paint for as long as possible gives them time to discover this. Or, as Ilene Beckerman wrote to her granddaughter Olivia in Makeovers at the Beauty Counters of Happiness: "When I was your age... I wish I'd known that I already had everything I needed within myself to be happy, instead of looking for happiness at beauty counters."
Laura Williamson is a Wanaka-based freelance writer and editor whose work has been published in newspapers here and overseas. She has a son named Liam.
I'm made up!
By Liz Breslin
Where my dad grew up, there was a phrase you used when you were really stoked - "I'm made up!' Sure, that was Liverpool, UK, in the 1950s and this is New Zealand in the new millennium. But I reckon it's still true. Make-up can make you happy.
At a recent festival in Wanaka, there were no less than four stalls offering face painting and the park positively heaved with sparkly butterflies, cheeky pigs and spidermen negotiating their ice cream on shaky toddler feet. A good time? A great time! So when I see seven year olds emerging from their bedrooms smeared in glitter and gloss, I remind myself that it's just an extension of dressing up.
My dad recalls fondly my own dressing-up days. I used to clomp around in high heels with a massive handbag over my shoulder and a big grin. In fact, high heels and a handbag still feel like dressing-up fun. I've never really learned how to rock them properly. As for make-up, I'm also as clueless as I was when I was five. My mum's make-up forays were confined to lipstick on important occasions. I remember her solemnly blotting it with loo paper and showing me the resultant lip rim. I loved that. But I don't even go that far myself, having never really learned.
My sister, on the other hand, is a make-up marvel. She knows how to create all kinds of faces. I'd be made up if I could make up like that. So, I suspect, would my husband, Jim. If I could, I mean. He reckons that make-up is a bit like washing your car - it's nice to look good sometimes when you go out. I took the opportunity to grill him further on this, along with his friend Andrew (who'd popped over for a quiet beer and ended up conversing about lip gloss). Andrew's daughter is eight and one of his frustrations is when she gets a gift that takes the make-up rules into new territory - from dress-ups to tweenie go-outs. But he sees the value in keeping up with, or maybe just below, what's going on with the girls.
I'm the same, as long as it's done in fun. I'd far rather have children who feel free and comfortable to share their image experimentation with me than kids who sneak out of the house, hitch up their skirt and do their make-up in the loos at school. Not that that's an issue at the local primary - the biggest transgression is perhaps a bit of lippy. And I don't for one second believe that playing with make-up is the tip of a slippery slope that includes padded bras and porn star T-shirts on the way to some paedophile-friendly baby beauty queen hell.
There's a whole chasm between a few sparkles and that attitude. I mean, the kids are doing face paint one minute and rugby the next. It's only an issue when we make it one.
The thing that really, really irks me is when parents bemoan their supposed inability to ignore perceived social pressures to let their kids run around like little hookers. If you don't like it, don't buy it, or buy into it. Simple, really.
Many of us just take the whole thing way too seriously - on both sides of the debate. You can't cover up your insecurities with make-up, however much you cake it. On the other hand, the denial of everything that glitters stops both learning and fun. We should be careful, in either case, not to foist our own prejudices onto our children. It must be very confusing to be allowed to have your face painted as a fairy but not to be able to dress up as a mummy.
And I'm wondering whether make-up is a bit like having a gun - if your child is going to be into it, they'll be into it whatever you do. As a kid I remember licking chocolate pebbles and using the colour to do my eyes. That was fun. And almost as interesting as my twig gun.
In researching this article, I couldn't find a single piece of research that said make-up in itself was bad for children (except for the evil toxins which are bad for us all). But among the rages against modern life, I did come across some fun-looking stuff. Spa parties for tweens. You get pink fluffy gowns and hair bands and a chocolate or strawberry face mask. How fun would that be? In fact... I'm sure I've a recipe somewhere for a banana and oat face mask that is good enough to eat. We could do that in the bath, and put cucumber slices on our eyes and slide them down our faces into our mouths! And then we could paint our nails in lolly colours and shake them like Disney princesses to dry them. Fun. So fun, in fact, I'd be made up!
Liz Breslin is a freelance writer based in Hawea Flat in Otago. She is the mother of twins, Dylan James and Lauren Marie.